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Behind Nancy Pelosi’s Approval Ratings

Julio Torres, Intern

Ronald M. Peters, Jr. is Regents’ Professor of Political Science at the University of Oklahoma. Cindy Simon Rosenthal is the Carlisle Mabrey and Lurleen Mabrey Presidential Professor of Political Science and Director and Curator of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma. Together, they have written Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the New American Politics.  Their book provides a comprehensive account of how Pelosi became Speaker and what this tells us about Congress in the twenty-first century. In the excerpt below,  the authors examine the dichotomies found in Pelosi’s approval ratings and what these findings articulate about the strengths and weaknesses of the speaker. Pelosi goes under the microscope as she’s compared to both the Energizer Bunny and the Big Bad Wolf.

In the first few months of 2009, congressional approval ratings spiked from January to March from 19% to 38% before falling back to 32% in April. As the year wore on debates over the economy, energy and health care became more intense, congressional approval ratings fell further. While approval of the Democratic Congress remained higher than during the past two years of Republican control, Congress continued to labor under a skeptical public eye. In September, Gallup found 63% of respondents disapproving of “the way Congress is handling its job.” Congressional Democrats received a 37% approval rating, while congressional Republicans lagged behind at 27%. The Real Clear Politics average of generic ballot polls conducted in early October showed the Democrats with only a 4.4% margin over the Republicans. Pelosi’s poll ratings were stubbornly and consistently negative… By September, her numbers were 27% approval, 44% disapproval, and embedded with those numbers was a striking gender story: among women the approval-disapproval balance was 31% to 36% while among men the approvals were dwarfed two-fold by disapprovals and among older men the ratio was 22% to 56%. Why have Pelosi’s approval ratings remained much more negative than positive? Certainty the gender difference reminds us of the longstanding pattern of bias against women’s suitability for politics… But more importantly, we surmise that Pelosi’s visible partisan role alienated both Republicans (who would not like her in any event) and many independents (put off by the perception that she is a highly partisan leader). The Republicans chose to make her rather than President Obama the object of their attack on the new regime, further eroding her standing. In spite of the fact that this is strategy had failed in both 2006 and 2008, Republicans decided to renew their attacks on Pelosi as a primary element of their 2010 election strategy. In addition… she damaged her public image when she undertook an attack on the CIA.

Pelosi’s relatively low approval ratings are, we believe, a reflection of the New American Politics. In the hyperpartisan environment in which Congress and the speakership are now enveloped, any Speaker will earn approval mostly from the base voters of her party. Pelosi’s exemplar, Tip O’Neill, consistently won approval from about half of the public and left office with a public approval rate above 60%. His high visibility and substantial support were buttressed by his ability to preserve an independent political persona even though he was an iconic liberal. As was also true of his nemesis, Ronald Reagan,  even his adversaries liked him… Today’s leaders are caught in a far more polarized environment. As we have seen, Pelosi has often presented herself as staunch partisan—one reason why she is Speaker today. In the era of the new American Politics, this likely sets a ceiling on the popular appeal.

Pelosi’s leadership style plays into her low approval ratings. She is a political battler by nature. While she has sought to take the edge off of her partisan image by donning a grandmotherly one, her partisan opponents are not as easily fooled as Little Red Riding Hood. She is also a sometime erratic communicator who has to exercise discipline to avoid straying off message. When that discipline breaks down, her natural impulses sometimes take over. The best example was the contretemps over the extent of her knowledge about the CIA’s EIT program. At the height of this episode, some wondered if it could prove fatal to Pelosi’s speakership. The fact that her caucus rallied to her side indicated that it would not. Recent history proves that a Speaker is at risk only when her members feel themselves at risk. Pelosi’s liberal image was no threat to liberal Democrats, but might cut against moderate Democrats in swing districts. Republicans had hitherto made no headway in these districts by attacking Pelosi; the CIA flap gave them anther opportunity.

Speaker Pelosi has brought an assertive approach to managing her party caucus. She is a hands-on leader, deeply involved in every aspect of the party operation. She has made and influenced the key leadership appointments.  She has made committee assignments. She has taken control of the party message. She has integrated the DCCC and the Speaker’s staff. She is the party’s chief fund-raiser. She has recruited candidates and appeared on their behalf in all parts of the country. She is the leading public face of the House Democrats. She has managed relations with the Senate and the White House. All along the way, she has continued to represent her constituents in San Francisco. This range of activity involvement has required enormous reserves of energy. In all of our interviews, the most frequent observations about Nancy Pelosi addressed her energy and drive. The metaphor of the “Energizer Bunny” was often invoked. We never solicited or implied interest in this topic; informants simply volunteered the description. The Speaker’s days typically start at seven o’clock (three days a week after a three-mile power walk) and often end at midnight. Members may receive calls from her at any hour of the day or night. Her energy can be measured not only by the length of her workday but also by her efficiency in using her time. Leadership and management often occur on the run. The rapid clicking of high heels is the signal of her approach. Staff members run to keep pace as she moves around the Capitol.

We know of no good empirical measures of the effort Speakers invest in their duties.  Albert put in long and dutiful days and regarded himself as a hard worker.  He spent much of his day actually presiding over the House and had nowhere near the span of control that Pelosi exercises.  O’Neill would have characterized his own approach as relaxed, and he was never accused of working too hard.  Gingrich once said that a fact of life for him was that he was always tired, yet he spent a lot of his time and energy traveling around the country in pursuit of his grand vision and did not always mind the store on Capitol Hill.  Hastert spent every weekend at home attending to his “honey-do” list, except when he was asked to travel for fund-raising or other political appearances.  Absent any precise measure, we simply assert this as our opinion: Speaker Nancy Pelosi has exerted more time and energy in the single-minded pursuit of her objectives than any of her modern predecessors.  We believe that this level of energy is demanded of the job today.

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  2. Ron Chusid

    Yes, polarization is certainly far greater now than in the era of Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neil. Before 1992 it was pretty much expected that the Democrats would control Congress and there was not the constant attacks on the Speaker and the Democratic controlled Congress to the degree there is now in an era both when things are more polarized and the Republicans see taking control of Congress as an obtainable goal.

  3. CFH

    “While approval of the Democratic Congress remained higher than during the past two years of Republican control,”…. Er, Congress has been controlled by Democrats since 2006….

  4. Rodger Harris

    This women is the worse that America has to offer. She has lied and cheated American long enough. There is hope that sooner rather then later she will follow the murder Ted Kenndey to her grave.

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